Student Perspectives

Insider's Guide

Financial Aid
Masters Projects
Med Scholars
Q&A with past students

This Insider's Guide was compiled by Lauren Cochran MD-MPH student 2005-06.

Most dual degree students take USMLE Step 1 before starting at Berkeley.  The major advantages of this approach are 1) getting it out of the way, and 2) taking the exam while HH&D is still fresh.  In addition, most of your classmates will be taking the exam during this time period (late spring or early summer following 2nd year) so there are perhaps more opportunities for group study.  Another option is to take Step 1 after your year at Berkeley, before starting clerkships.  The advantages of this approach are 1) having time to “refresh” after potential 2nd year burnout, and 2) being able to review pre-clinical material before starting clerkships.

There has been some concern about a statement in the USMLE Bulletin indicating that you must be enrolled in medical school both when you register for Step 1 and when you actually take the exam.  Check with Doug Monica ( about the specifics of your situation, but our impression is that dual degree students are able to register and sit for the exam even when not technically enrolled at Stanford (i.e., you should be able to take Step 1 whenever you want).


There are a number of ways to find housing in Berkeley.  The most popular option seems to be Craigslist, a community bulletin board that lets you search for apartments or rooms/shares based on neighborhood, price range, number of bedrooms, and other features.  You can expect to pay $500-800 for a private room in a shared apartment, $800-1000 for a studio, $900-1100 for a one-bedroom, and $1100-1600 for a two-bedroom apartment, similar to prices in Palo Alto.  If you want to walk to campus, it’s probably good to stick to “Berkeley” and “Berkeley North/Hills” (two of the neighborhoods listed under East Bay), but “Berkeley West” and areas in north Oakland are within biking distance of campus.  If you’re open to commuting via public transportation (BART or AC Transit buses), you can explore other parts of Oakland and nearby areas like Albany where prices are more reasonable.  It’s also possible to live in San Francisco and ride BART to campus, or even to commute from Stanford (perhaps an appealing option if you have great housing at Stanford and don’t want to give it up!).

UC Berkeley has its own system to help students find off-campus housing called Cal Rentals which, for $20, allows you 3-month access to their listings database.  Most students found this service less useful than Craigslist, but it might be a good option if you’re looking for a work exchange (typically 15 hours of babysitting, gardening, etc. in exchange for a rent-free room) or want to talk to a housing counselor for advice.

Finally, UC Berkeley offers on-campus housing for graduate students, including students who are married and/or have children.  Prices seem a little steep, but utilities are included and you can’t argue with the location.


Parking on and near Berkeley campus is very limited and expensive.  Fortunately, there are a number of other transportation options available.  Many students walk to school and, for much of the year, you can count on beautiful weather.  Biking is also popular.  The city of Berkeley has created a network of “Bicycle Boulevards” and bike racks are available throughout campus.  Unfortunately, bicycle theft is a serious problem, so it’s definitely worth investing in a good quality U-Lock.

If you’re living further from campus, you’ll probably want to consider public transportation.  BART runs throughout the East Bay and into San Francisco, and AC Transit has an extensive network of bus lines serving Berkeley and surrounding areas.  Plus, as part of the “Class Pass” program, all registered Berkeley students can ride AC Transit for free!  If you plan to commute from Stanford but don’t want to drive, you can take advantage of the Dumbarton Express, a bus that goes from Stanford (corner of El Camino and Stanford Avenue) to the Union City BART station.  The journey takes an hour and a half, but you won’t have to deal with traffic yourself!  And if you plan your classes carefully, you can make this commute just three times or even twice a week.

It is sometimes helpful to have access to a car for grocery shopping, other errands, late nights in San Francisco (BART trains don’t run much past midnight), etc.  Most neighborhoods near campus require residential parking permits, but they’re only about $30 per year.


On the whole, Berkeley aid packages are not as generous as Stanford packages.  Scholarships seem to be competitive, although several Stanford students have received University Fellowships (no separate application necessary).  Perkins loans, however, are limited and many students borrowing money from Berkeley will be left with a lot of unsubsidized Stafford loans.  Fortunately, in-state enrollment fees at Berkeley (about $12,000 per year) are considerably less than tuition at Stanford!  Also, Berkeley does not take parent finances into account when determining eligibility for most loans, so some students may qualify for subsidized Stafford loans (up to a maximum of $8500 per year) through Berkeley who are ineligible for subsidized loans through Stanford.
***NOTE: Don’t forget to submit an application for financial aid from Stanford if you plan to re-enroll during the summer following your year at Berkeley (summer quarter is considered part of the preceding academic year)!


For Interdisciplinary students, masters project guidelines are rather flexible (you’ll basically just need approval from Nap).  The only firm project requirements are: 1) an oral presentation (~20 minutes) in April, and 2) a written report (15-25 pages) to be submitted in early May.

Almost everyone agrees that it’s best to get started on your research project as early as possible.  The process of finding an appropriate advisor and a workable project can often take an entire semester, which can make it difficult to finish by the time final papers are due in May.  Another potential issue is the turnaround time for IRB applications (up to 2 months!), which are required for any project that involves human subjects.  Having a head start is also very helpful if you want to apply for Med Scholars funding from Stanford during the academic year (see below) or if you’re interested in international work (as most students in this position will use the winter break to conduct research overseas).  Of course, many Interdisciplinary students wait until the start of the academic year to begin their project searches and still finish in time for spring graduation, but it’s definitely worth thinking about ahead of time.

Especially with just one year to complete the project, it usually works best to identify an area of ongoing research that suits your interests and either carve out a piece of that research you can take personal responsibility for, or develop a complementary project that still fits with the goals of the organization (rather than develop your own project from scratch).  One way to start is to browse the School of Public Health faculty directory and identify any faculty members whose research interests align with your own.  Most Berkeley professors seem really open to, and excited about, working with students.  Just send an email, explain your situation and what you’re looking for and, if you’re in the bay area, maybe try to set up an in-person meeting.

Another great resource is Nap (, who is happy to chat about project ideas and can often suggest potential advisors.  The Center for Public Health Practice is another valuable resource, as they work with hundreds of local organizations to foster community-academic partnerships and coordinate summer internships for 2-year MPH students.  Finally, if you’ve already established a relationship with a community partner while at Stanford, you might want to discuss the possibility of building on your previous work with the organization and developing a project (possibly a needs assessment or a program evaluation) that could fulfill your MPH requirements.

The following are members of the SPH faculty who focus on research related to community health:

• Barbara Abrams, Dr.P.H., R.D. (Epidemiology)

• Patricia Crawford, Dr.P.H., R.D. (Community Health & Human Development)

• Leonard Duhl, M.D. (Emeritus)

• Brenda Eskenazi, Ph.D. (Epidemiology)

• Lia Fernald, Ph.D. (Community Health & Human Development)

• Sylvia Guendelman, Ph.D., M.S.W. (Community Health & Human Development)

• Denise Herd, Ph.D. (Community Health & Human Development)

• Lee Kaskutas, Dr.P.H. (Community Health & Human Development)

• Joyce Lashof, M.D. (Emeritus)

• Meredith Minkler, Dr.P.H. (Community Health & Human Development)

• Amani Nuru-Jeter, Ph.D., M.P.H. (Community Health & Human Development)

• David Ragland, Ph.D., M.P.H. (Epidemiology)

• Arthur Reingold, M.D. (Epidemiology)

• William Satariano, Ph.D., M.P.H. (Community Health & Human Development)

• Leonard Syme, Ph.D. (Emeritus)

• May Wang, Dr.P.H., R.D. (Community Health & Human Development)

• Warren Winklestein, M.D., M.P.H. (Emeritus)


A dual degree student can apply for Med Scholars funding from Stanford during his/her year at Berkeley.  Application deadline for winter quarter funding is typically in October, and applications for spring quarter funding are usually due in January.

In addition to working with your Berkeley faculty advisor or community advisor, you’ll also need to identify an advisor at Stanford with whom you can collaborate on the project.  The Med Scholars review committees want to see that both advisors are actively involved, so it’s best to find your Stanford advisor fairly early in the process.

Logistically, there are a couple issues to consider before you submit an application.  First, during any quarter when you are also enrolled at Berkeley, you are limited to a maximum 75% Med Scholars.  This means that you’ll be responsible for a portion of your Stanford tuition (approximately $3000 with 75% funding), in addition to your enrollment fees at Berkeley.  And if you’re receiving financial aid from Berkeley, you won’t be eligible to receive any aid from Stanford during this time period.  If you’re planning to start clerkships period 12, you’ll have to pay tuition for spring quarter anyway but, in any case, you’ll eventually get the remainder of your 100%, which will be applied toward tuition for future quarters.  And remember that every quarter enrolled at Stanford puts you one step closer to TMR, so it does pay in the long run!


• Statistics:
Statistics is required for all Berkeley MPH students.  Most dual degree students fulfill this 4-unit requirement during the fall quarter by taking PH142A: Introduction to Probability and Statistics in Biology and Public Health.  The instructor, Steve Selvin, is well respected and a highly entertaining lecturer, and the pace of the class is relaxed.  There are weekly or bi-weekly problem sets from the textbook (which are submitted for credit but are not graded) plus one midterm and an open-book final exam.  The exams don’t change much from year to year, so practice tests are helpful but, in any case, most students find the exams fairly easy.  The downside is that the class meets from 8-9am M/W/F in a gigantic lecture hall crammed with several hundred graduates and undergraduates.  Also, some students feel that the course content doesn’t translate very well into practical applications.

Another option is to take PH245: Introduction to Multivariate Statistics (offered fall semester).  This is a practical but challenging class that begins with multiple regression and assumes some familiarity with statistical software packages like STATA.  In addition, there are several classes offered during the spring semester (including PH241: Statistical Analysis of Categorical Data, which has gotten great reviews and overlaps with PH250B (see below) and PH252: Epidemiological Analysis) that also fulfill the statistics requirement.

If you want to avoid statistics classes altogether, you’ll have to take an exemption exam during Welcome Week.  The exam is open-book, lasts 3 hours, and covers material taught in PH142A.  They’ll send you a “reading list” of 9 books but, at least based on the class itself, the only one you’ll need is Biostatistics: How It Works by Steve Selvin.  If you have questions about the exemption exam, send an email to Maureen Lahiff at

• Epidemiology:
Epidemiology is also required for all MPH students, and there are essentially two course options.  Almost all Interdisciplinary students take PH250B: Epidemiologic Methods II with Jack Colford.  The class is fast-paced with a lot of reading, a problem set for each unit (not turned in but useful in preparing for exams), and three “midterms” throughout the quarter.  Despite some complaints about course logistics (e.g., the assigned readings are taken from 7-8 different textbooks, which can be a pain), 250B is almost universally lauded as one of the most valuable/useful classes for 1-year students.  The other option is PH250A: Epidemiologic Methods I with Art Reingold, another highly praised instructor.  This class essentially covers the same material as 250B but in less depth, and with less math.  Finally, there is the option of an exemption exam based on 250A material, offered during Welcome Week.

• Breadth Course:
PH200C (Public Health Breadth Course)is required of all MPH students during their first semester.  The class is organized into three units: 1) Health Policy & Management, 2) Environmental Health Sciences, and 3) Community Health & Human Development.  The assignments include two papers and a take-home exam.  Students often complain about disorganization and a lack of connection between units.  Medical students, in particular, might be frustrated by the fact that the course isn’t particularly “high yield” in terms of concrete knowledge.  But there are some interesting lectures (Ray Catalano, who leads the Health Policy unit, is a particularly dynamic speaker) and interesting readings, and what you get out of it probably just depends on how much you put in.

• Integrative Breadth Course:
PH200D (Applied Public Health: Putting Theory into Practice) is required of all MPH students during their last semester at Berkeley.  The first half of the course is essentially a series of guest lectures on a variety of public health topics.  During the second half of the semester, students are divided into small groups and assigned to work on a case study based on real public health problems, ranging homicide prevention in Contra Costa county to antiretroviral drug distribution in Tanzania.  This class tends to get better reviews than 200C, but is still not exactly a student favorite.

• Interdisciplinary Seminar:
PH292 is a year-long course for all Interdisciplinary students, led by Nap Hosang.  Most sessions involve a guest speaker, with topics ranging from Powerpoint instruction to qualitative research methods to disaster response.  But there are also a number of classes reserved for informal discussion of student projects, formal project presentations (during spring semester), and “camera sessions” designed to improve public speaking and presentation skills.  Occasionally there are short written assignments or assigned readings, but the focus is definitely on student projects.

While the session topics themselves can feel disjointed, there is definitely a sense of continuity and community that builds over the course of the year because of the small class size, and Interdisciplinary students often socialize outside of class.  Nap is a character to say the least, and is clearly invested in helping students make the most of their year at Berkeley.

• Recommended Electives:

  1. PH204A: Mass Communications in Public Health (fall)
  2. PH257: Outbreak Investigation (fall/spring)
  3. PH259B: Practical Applications of Epidemiologic Methods in Developing Countries (fall)
  4. PH288: Preventive Medicine Seminar (fall)
  5. PH142B: Introduction to Probability and Statistics in Biology and Public Health (spring)
  6. PH144A: Introduction to SAS Programming (spring)
  7. PH200A: Current Issues in Public Health Ethics: Research and Practice (spring)
  8. PH211: Health and Human Rights (spring)
  9. PH212D: International Health Specialty Area Core Course (spring)
  10. PH218B: Evaluation of Health and Social Programs (spring)
  11. PH219E: Introduction to Qualitative Methods in Public Health Research (spring)
  12. PH292: Sexually Transmitted Disease Control (spring)
  13. PH295: Program Planning, Development, and Evaluation (spring)


There are two major classes of on-campus jobs for graduate students.  GSRs (graduate student researchers) are essentially paid research assistants, and GSIs (graduate student instructors) are essentially teaching assistants.  Both provide monthly stipends and, if the appointment is at least 25% time, offer fee remission for in-state students.  Unfortunately, finding a position can be tricky.

If you want to work during fall semester, you’ll need to start your search in the spring (the earlier the better!).  The Graduate Appointments website is a good place to start, with general information about GSR/GSI positions.  Perhaps the best way to find a GSI position is to click on the “Academic Student Employee Job Opportunities” link, scan the department listing for your field(s) of expertise, and then send an email to the appropriate contact person to enquire about specific openings for the upcoming semester.  In some cases, it might be difficult for a student outside the department to get a teaching job, but other departments seem to hire “outsiders” on a regular basis.  Integrative Biology (IB), for example, actually advertises GSI openings through the School of Public Health listserve and upcoming IB openings and application forms should be available here.

GSR positions are also sometimes advertised through the SPH listserve, but it seems like most people find these jobs by contacting individual faculty members. 


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